Rare condition causes ‘electric shocks’ of pain so agonising it’s dubbed ‘the suicide disease’

By Staff 7 Min Read

Trigeminal neuralgia is thought to be connected to at least eight suicides, with sufferers comparing the jolts of pain – sometimes occurring hundreds of times a day – to being electrocuted

A little-understood nerve disorder causes so much pain it’s become known as “the suicide disease”.

Trigeminal neuralgia is a rare condition that compresses a particular nerve in the skull. Eating, drinking, smiling, talking or brushing one’s teeth can all trigger an attack – a sharp shooting pain in the jaw, teeth or gums. This sensation can last from a few seconds to about two minutes at a time.

Those with a more extreme version of TN can suffer hundreds of attacks a day when the illness is at its worst, such as during winter when cold air and wind can trigger the pain.

The Mirror’s own Dr Miriam Stoppard has written of the disease: “Sufferers describe the pain as being like a vicious electric shock, or being tortured with a cattle prod in the face. TN can be so agonising that some people would rather kill themselves than face a future living in isolation and misery.

“There have been eight ‘known’ suicides associated with the condition in recent years. Fear of another unpredictable attack, coupled with the debilitating effects of the drugs, causes victims to become withdrawn and isolated.”

The NHS says: “The attacks of pain are usually brought on by activities that involve lightly touching the face, such as washing, eating and brushing the teeth, but they can also be triggered by wind – even a slight breeze or air conditioning – or movement of the face or head. Sometimes the pain can happen without a trigger.”

It adds: “Living with trigeminal neuralgia can be very difficult. It can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, resulting in problems such as weight loss, isolation and depression.”

There is no cure for TN, however sufferers can find some relief with drugs normally used to treat epilepsy. Carbamazepine, an anticonvulsant medication, can relieve the pain by slowing down electrical impulses in the nerves and reducing their ability to transmit pain messages.

In rare cases surgery can be performed to open the skull and move blood vessels so that they are no longer compressing the trigeminal nerve. Research indicates this solution offers the most effective results for long-term pain relief but carries the risk of serious complications such as hearing loss or a stroke.

In 2021 the Mirror reported on the story of Laura Cruz, a primary school teacher who was experiencing jolts of intense pain up to 25 times a day. She was 28 when she was diagnosed with TN after first noticing a tingling sensation in her lip, although the condition is more common in people over 50.

Laura said at the time: “This disease has completely consumed my life; I can’t brush my hair or my teeth, eat, sleep, stand in the wind, or touch my face without feeling like I’m being electrocuted across my face.

“The flare ups are so bad that I now understand why it’s called the ‘suicide disease’. I’m on medication that is supposed to suppress the pain but I’m still having breakthrough pain up to 25 times per day and it’s so bad that sometimes I scream out loud.”

The Samaritans is available 24/7 if you need to talk. You can contact them for free by calling 116 123, email [email protected] or head to the website to find your nearest branch. You matter.

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